Agricultural Collapse Disorder?

by Peggy Olive

A documentary entitled “Vanishing of the Bees” ( aired Tuesday night to a packed room at the SFU Harbour Front campus.

Most of you are probably aware of the problems with honeybees which, by the way, are not native to North America. A large percentage of the commercial honeybee hives now suffer from what has been called “Colony Collapse Disorder.” Bees become ill and disoriented and mysteriously disappear from their hives. The industry has imported Australian bees to compensate for losses but this is not a permanent solution. Although the documentary focused on two commercial bee keepers in the Southern US, this is a global problem, including Canada. In 2010, 90% of the commercial honeybees disappeared on Vancouver Island.

There does not appear to be a single cause but multiple causes acting in concert. The documentary focussed on systemic insecticides as major contributors to honeybee death. In the past, when crop dusting was used to control pests, honeybees could be protected to some extent by moving the hives away during spraying, but the new generation of systemic pesticides, with strange names like Poncho and Gaucho, remain with the developing plant and are present in the nectar and pollen collected by the honeybees. Although single doses are not lethal, there is concern that cumulative low doses may be responsible for colony collapse disorder, perhaps by damaging the immune system and giving ubiquitous infective agents (viruses, fungus and bacteria) free range. Unfortunately, industry testing of these pesticides has not required analysis of possible sublethal effects or damage to the developing insects. Bayer CropScience admitted that the misapplication of Clothianidin was responsible for killing two-thirds of beekeepers’ bees in a region of Germany in 2008.

In my opinion, the most informative aspect of the evening was Mark Winston’s summary at the end of the video. Dr. Winston, a professor at SFU, is an authority on bees, and he managed, with considerable diplomacy, to point out some of the issues he felt had been underplayed in the film. Questionable beekeeping practices leading to resistance to antibiotics and mitocides (mites kill the developing bees) are also a big part of the explanation for what he called “Agricultural Collapse Disorder.” At the base of the honeybee problem is the growth of commercial monocultures – huge acreages of single crops that bloom for short periods during a year. These monocultures, unlike small acreages, cannot be fertilized by wild bees because wild bees will not “set up shop” where they cannot find flowers all season long. So to fertilize monocultures, honeybees must be brought to the site during the flowering season. Therefore intense “industrialization” of the honeybee keeping enterprise has contributed in a major way to the vanishing bee problem. It was sad to see sick honeybees fed on a diet of powdered sugar laced with antibiotics, apparently part of the price we have paid to increase productivity and lower the cost of our food.

When I first heard about the honeybee problem, I was under the impression that we might be reduced to eating soybeans and corn (from Monsanto no doubt) because loss of honeybees meant no pollination of many flowers and in turn, no development of many fruits and vegetables. What I learned from Dr. Winston is that wild bees (there are thousands of species) are quite capable of fertilizing fruits and vegetables, at least in our cities and mixed farms. These bees are also at risk from the pesticides, but they typically live solitary lives and are not packaged and trucked thousands of miles across country, genetically manipulated, and used to harvest honey. A solution to the commercial honeybee problem means incorporating mixed farming practices, giving the bees a stress-free permanent home, and, of course, stopping the use of pesticides. The honeybees have shown us that we can push nature only so far. Let’s show them we’re listening.

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